Thursday, September 18, 2014

UK must now prove it’s ‘better off together’

Victory for the No campaign in the Scottish referendum was not unexpected. While media commentators love to trot out the ‘too close to call’ cliché, the fact is that apart from a couple of hiccups about a week out, No was always in the lead and this was mirrored in the final result.

However, while the margin of around 10 per cent is substantial, that other cliché about a ‘comfortable victory’ should also be avoided. This is no time for triumphalism. More than 1.5 million Scots did cast their vote for independence and that should be exercising some minds back at Westminster.

Among the mass of tweets and comments on the result was one from Canada which decried the fact that ‘Scotland has voted to stay subject to its English overlords’. While North Americans have a habit of poking their noses into United Kingdom affairs, usually with a breathtaking amount of ignorance, this statement is worth noting.

Do many Scots really consider themselves to be second-class citizens in relation to the English? The sheer imbalance of population means that democracy works against them. It had been hoped the granting of limited self-government and a Parliament at Edinburgh would go a long way to satisfying the inevitable frustrations north of the border, but for a significant proportion of the population apparently not.

In the last few days of the campaign, when it seemed the momentum might be shifting towards Yes, British Prime Minister David Cameron made some hasty commitments to grant further powers to Edinburgh. He will now be held to that promise.

The question for the Government – and for the Parliament at Westminster - is now what form those powers will take and how it will affect the United Kingdom as a whole.

There has been discontent among English MPs over their Scottish colleagues voting on English matters while the English no longer have a say over much of what goes on in Scotland. It is fair to surmise that if further powers head north that discontent would increase.

There have even been suggestions of an ‘English Parliament’, perhaps based in Birmingham. Where that would leave Westminster one can only guess.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has conceded defeat. But is this defeat in the battle or the war? One thing is certain: a Yes vote would have sundered Scotland from the UK forever. The permanency of a No victory…? Well, I am not so sure.

Salmond and his Nationalist colleagues know there is a wellspring of discontent with the status quo among many Scots. Independence has been beaten back today, but what is to stop him or his successors maintaining in a decade or so that ‘that was then and this is now’ and calling for another referendum?

The weed of instability may have been cut down for now, but there is more work to be done on both sides of the border if it is to be finally pulled out by the roots.              


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Xi’s visit major test for Indian PM

In the days leading up to the State visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India, Beijing has been up to its usual games.

Xi will come bearing the promise of Chinese largesse. Apparently he is ready to make investments worth $100 billion which, his diplomats have noted, will be three times that which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi obtained from his recent visit to Japan and probably a fair bit more than he will get in his forthcoming visit to the United States.

Money like this will always be at a price, whatever country you are dealing with. Mostly it comes in areas such as the promise to buy things the donor country wishes to sell, or special concessions to set up industries that can produce goods cheaper than is possible in the donor’s homeland.

This is a quite normal part of the give and take of international dealing and is well understood by all parties.

But with China there are always the hidden concessions. In this case they were set up a few days ago when Chinese troops violated the Line of Actual Control between the countries in Jammu and Kashmir and penetrated two kilometres into Indian territory.

Around 200 members of the People’s Liberation Army, complete with bulldozers and other equipment, were seen constructing a road which Indian officials said was an attempt to link with outposts on the Chinese side of the border.

Indian troops confronted the incursion and the Chinese eventually withdrew.

The incident was serious – as Beijing claims large areas of Jammu and Kashmir as well as most of the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh - but not serious enough to halt Xi’s visit. He will be greeted with all the usual honours accorded to a foreign Head of State, and Beijing will claim this as proof that India is not committed to the current border and is ready to accept China’s claims.

The same goes for a recent agreement between New Delhi and Hanoi for a joint oil exploration project off the Vietnamese coast – intruding into the South China Sea which Beijing claims as its private lake. China has criticised the deal, describing its sovereignty over the area as “undeniable”.

So will Modi be forced into concessions in order to promote the massive infrastructure projects that are so dear to his heart and on the promise of which he was elected in May?

New Delhi says the borders will be discussed during the visit, but most commentators suggest there will be little or no movement on an issue which has dragged on since the 1962 war between the two countries.  

In many ways this is a visit for the Chinese to sound out the new Indian PM and to see how far he will buckle under the inducements of support for high speed rail, industrial parks, highways, ports etc.   

They will find the Indian leader a far different proposition from his quietly-spoken predecessor, Manmohan Singh - a man who is prepared to call a spade a spade, ready to take as much as they are prepared to give, while offering as little as possible in return.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ian Paisley’s legacy in Northern Ireland

The recent death of Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland sent me thinking of my meetings with the man during his campaign for the United Kingdom Parliament in June 1970.

I was working as a reporter in the province and covered much of his campaign. It was the beginning of what became to be known as the “Troubles”, with the long-dormant Irish Republican Army (IRA) finding new life on the back of the Catholic community’s legitimate demand for civil rights.

Paisley led the Protestant resistance to the Catholics’ campaign and the subsequent crackdown, first by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, then supplemented by the Protestant-dominated ‘B Specials’ began the spiral into violence.

At the time of his campaign for Westminster, Paisley was already a member of the Northern Ireland Parliament, having won a by-election for the Bannside constituency a couple of months earlier, but he had set his sights on Westminster.

It was a warm night when the result was declared and the atmosphere in the crowded hall in Ballymena in the North Antrim constituency he was seeking to capture, was stifling. Paisley won by less than 3000 votes, upsetting the sitting Ulster Unionist candidate Henry Clark who had previously held the seat with an almost 30,000 majority.

Despite the relative closeness of the final result Paisley was undaunted and in typical fashion told his cheering supporters that “the hand of God had been at work” in the Province to ensure his election.

Paisley was never again seriously challenged for the seat and held it for 40 years; standing down in 2010 when his son, also called Ian, was elected in his place. At one point he was a member of three Parliaments – the Northern Ireland Assembly, Westminster and the European Union in Strasbourg (although he opposed the United Kingdom’s EU membership).

It was in Strasbourg that he caused outrage when he interrupted an address by Pope Paul II to the Parliament, calling him the “antichrist” — in the subsequent uproar he was ejected.

But Paisley mellowed as he aged, and in 2005 agreed that his Democratic Unionist Party should share power with Sinn Fein, in the past referred to as the political wing of the IRA. He became First Minister, with Martin McGuinness, a man he had once denounced as a terrorist, as his deputy.

The two worked well together and at news of Paisley’s death last week, McGuinness described him as a friend.

While I knew Paisley only in his early days, I had always thought there were two sides to his character. The firebrand orator, denouncing the Pope as “old red-socks” and the Dublin administration as “that priest-ridden banana republic” was, in personal conversation, quiet-spoken, reflective and witty.

That he loved Northern Ireland there is no doubt. But it was always to be a Protestant Ulster, tied to the British Crown forever.

For that reason there will be many who have celebrated his death, but in the end perhaps his most important legacy will be his pragmatic decision to lead the fierce ultra-loyalist Protestants he represented into mainstream politics, giving reasonable hope that the bitter antagonisms that have plagued the province for so long will gradually fade into history.    


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Modi taps into Tokyo’s treasure

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on safe ground during his recent visit to Japan. For a start he was meeting his counterpart, Shinzo Abe, a declared Indophile who is on record as saying he wants closer links between the countries.

The coincidence of two essentially conservative administrations meant there were few ideological differences. Finally cultural and religious ties that have their origins in the spread of Buddhism from India to Japan mean that the nations have usually been on good terms. Modi must have known from the outset that he was among friends.

The two men have one more thing in common – distrust of the expansionist aims of their big neighbour, China. Japan is in dispute with Beijing over ownership of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, while China lays claim to 90,000 square kilometres of Indian territory in the State of Arunachal Pradesh and another 38,000 square kilometres in Jammu and Kashmir.

Modi made no secret of his position when, in a speech to Japanese businesspeople, he deplored the “expansionist tendencies among some countries which encroach upon the seas of others”.

At about the same time he was giving this address, the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi announced that a scheduled meeting in Beijing between its Minister, Sushma Swaraj and her Russian and Chinese counterparts would not now take place.

It may well be that Modi did not want India involved in a high-level meeting with Russia while most of the rest of the world was condemning its military adventures in Ukraine; more likely he did not want to place Ms Swaraj in the position of possibly having to defend his remarks in the capital of the country they were so obviously aimed at.

Meanwhile the Indian PM got what he came for – some $35 billion in Japanese investment and financing over the next five years for infrastructure projects such as smart cities and the cleaning of the River Ganga.

Japan will participate in the establishment of India’s first bullet train network, while New Delhi has agreed to buy Japan’s US-2 amphibious rescue and reconnaissance planes in a deal which may eventually see a plant to manufacture the aircraft set up in India. 

Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are due to make visits to New Delhi over the next few months. Both will receive cordial welcomes – but by now both will also understand they will be visiting an active player in Asia’s diplomatic games.